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February 03 2012


Audio danger: NPR’s Kelly McEvers on trauma and the calculus of risk

[The second installment in an ongoing series of posts by Julia Barton about audio narratives. –Ed.]

The title of this series, “Audio danger,” is mostly tongue-in-cheek. But not in the case of Kelly McEvers. McEvers now works as one of NPR’s correspondents in the Middle East, and she’s opened the network’s first bureau in Beirut. But I first ran across her name in 2006, when she was a freelance journalist in Russia on an International Reporting Project fellowship. McEvers had been detained in Dagestan, a rough part of the North Caucasus along the Caspian Sea. Local officials with the FSB, the federal security services, accused her of traveling in neighboring Chechnya.

“They interrogated me for like 14 hours a day, and then at night they’d say, ‘You’re free to go,’ but they had my passport. And then they would follow me home. The car would stay parked out front for a few hours, and then they would call the next morning and say, ‘It’s time to go.’ ”

McEvers didn’t suffer any violence during the four-day ordeal, but the threat of it was very real. (She also had to surrender all of her notes and equipment before she was allowed to leave Dagestan).

These days, McEvers interviews many people who’ve been through horrible experiences: child brides who’ve survived rape in Yemen; protesters tortured in Syria. McEvers lets their stories unfold with an understanding of the way real danger – unlike the kind we often see in the movies – has deep effects that can make it hard to talk about.

“I can see when someone has experienced trauma,” McEvers says. “I think I’m able to empathize a lot more with people because I have been through some of this stuff.  Nothing like what they’ve been through – I mean, people aren’t cutting my relatives into pieces. But I know what it’s like to just be numb, or to blame yourself.”

McEvers’ patience paid off last year with this feature she pursued for months in Iraq. It introduces us to Uhud, a 19-year-old woman from a tribal area of Diyala, northeast of Baghdad. Uhud fell prey to a sex-trafficking scam, the details of which we will never figure out. That confusion, in fact, is central to the story.

“Some of what we’re about to tell you might not actually be true,” McEvers says at the very top of the piece. “The reasons for this will become clear as the story unfolds.”

According to Uhud’s convoluted account, she was kidnapped at gunpoint while out shopping, then beaten and later taken to Irbil, in Kurdistan. There she says she worked in a Christian-owned café somehow affiliated with a brothel. A famous soccer player later rescued her, Uhud says, and a few months later she ended up back home in Diyala.

“When she first came, the whole family had one thing in mind: We assumed she had been raped. So we thought of killing her,” one male relative tells McEvers in a matter-of-fact way, via an interpreter. “She has a brother who would kill her as easily as drinking a glass of water. But then we calmed things down.”

Sort of. When we revisit Uhud a few months later, she’s basically living under family house arrest. She says an uncle spits on her whenever he sees her and threatens to slit her throat if her story doesn’t check out. As McEvers leaves Uhud, she’s up on the roof setting pet pigeons free. “They fly in the sky for a while, then they come back home,” McEvers translates for Uhud over the sound of flapping wings.

We’ll never know Uhud’s real story, but of course that’s not the point: By living with her for seven minutes, we viscerally feel the way shame and sex-trafficking thrive off one another.

Foreign correspondents for radio face special hurdles. The people they interview often don’t speak English, so we lose the direct narrative force that propels so many audio stories. And most of us have never been to places like war-torn Iraq, so even with great descriptive copy, our minds still tend to fill in the background with stereotypical images from TV news or “National Geographic”: deserts, burqas, bullet-pocked walls.

Of course, correspondents can’t only focus on personal narratives, and McEvers does her share of big-picture, geopolitical reporting. But stories like Uhud’s are one way to slice through the obstacle of listener confusion (and, let’s face it, indifference) when it comes to reports from abroad.

“I try to make those personal stories have a larger point, but just to reach that point through personal narratives. People in Dubuque are going to remember that more than a talking head,” McEvers says.

And radio has one major advantage when it comes to McEvers’ frequent focus on the plight of women in the Middle East.

“A microphone is so much easier than a camera,” she says. “You never get to take pictures of these women. Never. Especially those women with a shameful story.” McEvers sometimes spends a lot of time explaining to her sources how they will sound on the other end in America. “You know, ‘It’s just your voice – it’s going to be dubbed into English.’ I draw pictures of what it’s going to sound like, (their voices) fading under (the translation).”  Sometimes reluctant sources will agree to whisper, or speak broken English, to hide their identities further.

But especially as the Arab world changes so rapidly, McEvers says she can face a different problem – people so desperate for someone to hear their stories, they won’t let her leave. “In Iraq, there are so many widows, or mothers who’ve lost children. No one’s listening to them.”

These days McEvers’ own personal narrative is affecting the way she thinks about trauma and danger in her profession. She now has a 2-year-old daughter. Questions about her ordeal seven years ago in Dagestan elicit a snort.

“It should’ve been instructive, but it’s not. I didn’t learn my lesson,” she says. “But none of us do.” It’s something few foreign correspondents talk about openly, McEvers says: Simply put, editors – and by proxy, the rest of us – too often reward them for putting their lives at risk in pursuit of the story.

“When you have little children, you think a lot about positive and negative reinforcement,” she says. “And we foreign correspondents are positively reinforced for bad behavior.”

Julia Barton (@bartona104) is an editor, media trainer, producer and writer who spearheads the “Audio danger” series on Storyboard.

January 04 2012


Audio danger: stories from the edge of listening

[As part of our mission to look at storytelling in every medium, Storyboard is pleased to introduce Julia Barton, who will bring us several posts in 2012 focused on developments in and examples from the world of audio narratives. –Ed.]

Writers and video producers live in dread of the wandering eye. Audio producers live for it. That’s what makes us, in our secret hearts, troublemakers. We want you to lose sight of everything in front of your face: to stare through that dish in your hand, ignore your children, drop into a glazed-over trance of our making. Maybe don’t drive off the road, but please do miss a few exits or get stuck in your car. Good audio should be dangerous that way.

But it’s very hard to accomplish, especially these days, when more and more audio comes to us via that distraction machine, the Web. Hence these posts. In the Storyboard spirit, I’ll be talking with audio producers and editors about how they accomplish their best stories, what obstacles they’ve overcome and the strategies they’ve learned along the way. I should point out that conversations about audio craft have long been underway on sites like Transom and airmedia.org. And there’s a great new podcast, “How Sound,” from longtime audio instructor Rob Rosenthal, who also interviews intrepid producers. In the posts I’ll be doing for Storyboard, I’ll simply be adding to (and sometimes echoing) all those worthy explorations.

I got my start in radio in 1995, while pursuing a master’s degree in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. Doing airshifts at WSUI, the university’s then-analog AM public radio station, was for me just an amusing side trip on the way to a blurry future in magazine writing. But then we started airing a new show, “This American Life,” at 6 a.m. on my Sunday shift. I had a huge list of things to do during that hour, but I kept forgetting about my impending newscast and listening to the radio instead. The stories, at once mesmerizing and funny and surprising, actually endangered my work. So I had to start putting TAL on cassettes to hear later, like a portable, or pocket – or what’s the word? – cast.

Since those days, I’ve been a radio reporter, an editor, and contributor to such programs as PRI’s “Studio 360” and “The World.” Still, every time I sit down to craft a new audio feature, it feels almost as hard as the first time. Every piece is its own hellish puzzle.

That said, audio – especially broadcast radio – is a pretty conservative medium. Listeners appreciate familiarity and tend to punish experimentation (see below for one example). On the upside, I really don’t have to try anything new. On the downside: well, not to offend anyone, but there are plenty of places on the low FM band where, format wise, it remains 1979. That’s fine for many; I don’t want it to be fine for me.

So I sometimes go in search of the subtle shifts that amount to major trends in our hidebound world of audio storytelling. To that end, I talked with two people with their ears especially open: Julie Shapiro, head of the Third Coast International Audio Festival (TCIAF) in Chicago, and Roman Mars, who was a judge for TCIAF’s awards competition this year – and who produces a successful and innovative podcast of his own, “99% Invisible,” about design. (Full disclosure: I’ve edited Roman’s work and also did a story for him).

Hundreds of aspiring Next-Big-Thing audio producers submit their best work to TCIAF from around the world. When I asked Shapiro and Mars what trends they’re hearing, most of their answers fell under one surprisingly simple category: the “Radiolab” Effect. WNYC’s “Radiolab,” in case you haven’t heard it, is an occasional broadcast and regular podcast about science, and it’s as highly produced as anything on the radio. Most “Radiolab” stories are crafted from hundreds of hours of audio, a ratio that that’s hard for even the most accomplished programs to pull off. Ira Glass recently confessed in Transom, “If they could do an hour of this every week, I think I’d have to quit radio.”

So Shapiro and Mars aren’t hearing a replication of of Radiolab’s labor-intensive production values, but they are hearing another trademark of the show, its conversational style. You’d think, since the talk radio format is mostly talk, that this would be a given. But radio evolved in the age of oratory, when a stentorian delivery helped pierce the broadcast static, and that’s what listeners still expect.

In the age of HD and earbuds, though, producers are finding they can sound more like themselves. “Radiolab” co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich break down complicated stories through a relaxed Socratic dialogue, an approach that’s also been popularized by NPR’s “Planet Money” and APM’s “Freakonomics.”

“People are starting to recognize you can have fun and talk about interesting things as well,” Shapiro says. Or as Mars puts it, “In America, we explain things a lot. So much that we need two people.”

Shapiro and Mars also hear a big “Radiolab” Effect in the deeper integration of music and storytelling, far beyond the musical scoring that’s a hallmark of “This American Life.” You can hear Jad Abumrad’s Oberlin music composition degree in the show’s use of original music to explain concepts (this segment from the episode “Loops” is a good example). That technique is showing up in more TCIAF award winners, like this independent piece, “Kohn,” about a man with a disability that causes him to speak slowly but also causes his brain to hear himself as speaking like everyone else. Producer Andy Mills reached out to the band Hudson Branch to compose a song about Kohn’s brain, and the spoken story acts almost as a setup for the performance.

TCIAF’s winning story this year, “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt,” takes the musical approach a step further, remixing whole swaths of an interview with an underworld character who runs (or ran) a strip club out of his Detroit home. The nervous, disorienting result crystallizes at the point when Thunderbolt pulls a gun on his interviewers.

“None of us could stop listening,” Mars says of the piece. “It solved problems in really creative ways. Almost every step was chancy.”

“Chancy,” of course, thrills the veteran producers behind TCIAF, and it’s their job to reward it. Yet flagship programs such as NPR’s “All Things Considered” get a lot of flack when they showcase even mildly risky work. So it’s to the show’s credit that it teamed up with the independent producers at Long Haul Productions to air their story about the relationship between hydraulic fracking and earthquakes in rural Arkansas. The piece breaks many formats: it’s non-narrated, meaning interviewees and “found sound” do all the talking; and it features a commissioned song interwoven among the interviews. Listeners were quick to vent their fury at NPR. “I don’t want artsy, stylistic reporting; I want factual reporting,” said one.

“How Sound” podcaster Rob Rosenthal later interviewed the producers, Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister, about the experience. The upshot? It sucked, but ATC’s editors are standing by the team, and maybe next time they’ll make more effort to explain experimental formats ahead of time.

At least the angry ATC listeners were, well, listening. And maybe catching a whiff of how dangerous that can be.

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